There are a number of companies developing ways to grow food in the desert, using solar power and seawater. I’ve written before about the Sahara Forest Project and Sundrop Farms. These sorts of projects grow food in inhospitable places, reducing pressure on agricultural land and helping to feed a growing global population. In some cases they can be combined with reforestation efforts to create truly restorative agriculture.
One limiting factor to these growing techniques is that they’re expensive. That means big investments and larger scale farming, and it won’t be profitable everywhere. Sophisticated solar and hydroponic systems will pay for themselves if you’re producing high value salad vegetables that you can sell to wealthy consumers. But how many of them live in or near the desert? These schemes will work in places like Australia and parts of the Middle East, but will they do anything for the millions of people who live in dry and arid regions in less developed countries? Could they help to provide food in areas vulnerable to drought and famine?
Until recently, the answer has been no, but Seawater Greenhouses‘ latest venture in Somaliland may change that. They’ve built in Abu Dhabi and partnered with Sundrop in Australia, and they wanted to adapt their technology for a region that needed it more: the Horn of Africa. They would have to cut costs dramatically, make it rugged and durable, and scale it down.
After three years of work, the company had designed a version of their system that was modular, and ten times cheaper than before. It still uses desalination and evaporative cooling, but it has nets rather than a traditional greenhouse. It was completed in October last year, and this week they harvested their first crop.
At the moment the 1 hectare farm sits in the middle of a barren patch of drylands. As it grows and develops, the fresh water being created by the solar desalination plant will begin to improve conditions beyond the greenhouse itself, creating an ‘oasis effect’. There are plans to grow beans, melons and other crops outside, and eventually re-green the area.
I’ve been waiting for a development like this. We need to see similar things with urban farming projects like Agricool or Aerofarms. New agricultural techniques will come into their own when they serve the people and places that need them most.
- Thanks to Jim for the story